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The Empty Nest: What Happens When the Chicks Fly

by Dr. Ilona L. Tobin

From the second they arrive on the planet, just inches long and utterly dependent, our children occupy a place in our hearts deeper than most any other relationship.

We nurture, guide, feed and protect them for years. The relationship brings us a complex mixture of joy, frustration, sadness, delight, anger, pride and love. Our children occupy our focus like nothing else, as they grow taller and more independent with every year. And then they go away.

Of course, we knew that from the beginning. And that’s been the goal all along.
But that doesn’t make an empty nest any easier when it finally comes.
Fortunately, an empty nest is also the beginning of another era for parents, one that can be equally fulfilling.

Varied Reactions to the Empty Nest

Several recent studies have shed light on what’s often referred to as “empty nest syndrome“—that is, the feelings of grief that arise when children leave home for college, jobs or marriage. Here are a few of their findings:

Feelings of loss are not exclusive to women. Men feel just as much loss and may actually be less emotionally prepared to deal with those feelings.

Most women don’t fall apart. Unlike the common perception, it’s not typical for most women to experience lingering depression, or loss of purpose and identity. Though they experienced sadness, mothers in a 2008 University of Missouri study spoke more about their pride and joy in watching their kids make this transition and the relief they felt in seeing the fruits of their labor realized.

Happier partnerships. Contrary to the image of couples having trouble after the kids are gone, empty nesters of both genders reported their marital satisfaction was improved because they spent more quality time together.

Some Parents Suffer

Not everyone cries for a week and then moves on with life. Some parents really suffer.

Carin Rubenstein, PhD, author of Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily Ever After…After the Kids Leave Home, says that about 10% of mothers are more severely affected when their children leave home, and the problem
may be more long-term.

Research suggests that those who experience the most long-term pain have these things in common:

  • They consider change stressful and to be avoided.
  • Their marriage is rocky.
  • They worry that their children aren’t ready for adult responsibilities.
  • They have a weaker sense of self-worth; their identity is tied to being a parent.
  • Their own experience of moving away from their parents was difficult.
  • Other “letting go“ times, such as weaning or sending children to school, were painful.
  • They are full-time parents, with no other paid employment or self-employment.

How to Get Through It
If you are having severe reactions (crying excessively, so sad you don’t want to see friends or go to work, feeling your useful life has ended), consider seeking professional

For most parents, the following suggestions will help you get through the transition:

Feel your feelings. But don’t burden your children with them. Once they’ve left, ration your calls to once or twice a week. Try texting. The more they feel you clinging, the more they’ll pull away.

Get support. If you’re going through menopause, or having to care for elderly parents, your feelings may be exacerbated. Speak with a physician if you’re experiencing
difficult menopausal symptoms, and consider ways to take a break from your caregiving to take care of YOU.

Be proactive. As much as possible, make family plans while everyone is still under the same roof. Plan family vacations, take time off from work for special days, take advantage of all opportunities to talk with your child.

Dream and do. Use your greater freedom and relaxed responsibility
to get back in touch with your own dreams and aspirations. Make a list of all the hobbies you’d like to pursue, or classes you’d like to take. Spend time that you didn’t have before developing new friendships. Dive into that new business
or career that you’ve been dreaming about.

Above all, forgive yourself for not being a “perfect“ parent, and acknowledge all that you’ve been able to provide for your children. Focus on letting go and trusting that your child is on his or her path—bumps and all—and will be fine. And you will be, too.

Ilona Tobin has been a psychologist and a marriage and family therapist for more than 25 years in Birmingham, Michigan. For more information, please visit her listing on the Therapist Directory.

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